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Regis College discusses obesity epidemic

November 24, 2009

Weston Town Crier
Tue Nov 24, 2009, 12:38 PM EST

Weston - Gaining weight is a problem for many, if not most of us, around Thanksgiving, but, for increasing numbers of Americans, obesity is a year-round problem with major health implications.

Obesity is not just caused by eating too much and watching too much TV, said researchers and doctors at the recent Regis College Leadership Series on Health. There are many environmental factors that are sometimes out of the control of the individual. By amassing more data on the subject, they hope not only to better people’s lives, but to change public policy.

Regis College and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care partner in offering this series.

"In Massachusetts, we have the second lowest rate of obese adults in the nation, and we don’t think we have a problem," says Jennifer Sachek, PhD, a nutritionist from Tufts University. "But we do have a problem."

With 21.2 percent obese adults and 30 percent obese children in Massachusetts alone, doctors  see the increase in  heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure in adults and children alike.

"It’s not just an increase in weight that’s the problem," agreed Valerie Bassett, executive director for the Massachusetts Public Health Association. "It’s an increase in disease."

"Obesity is not simply a medical issue but a social and environmental issue," said moderator Karen Voci, executive director of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.

"We must grapple with how body image, obesity, emotion and social structure are woven together," said Deborah J. Cohan, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Regis College.

"Rather than talk about obesity as an objective social or medical problem, I want us to think about how we view obesity, how we construct it and respond to it as a social problem. We must look in particular at how eating problems often begin as orderly responses to oppressive and chaotic structural conditions such as racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia and violence and trauma."

The rise in obesity – or what Sachek calls "the inability of an individual to control the environment he or she is in" – is caused by a number of factors – environment, where you get food away from home, the family structure, TV and computer time, purchasing power, and even genes (though researchers believe that has less to do with it than other forces in most people’s lives).

Dr. Jeffery Geller, MD, of the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, agrees. He says the barriers to losing weight are often not medical, but rather economic (the inability to pay for fresh fruits and vegetables), social (lack of good adult role models from whom children learn good eating practices), cultural (different emphasis on thinness depending on ethnicity), and physical (availability of safe places to play or exercise).

"The forces that make it harder for people to make healthy choices have gotten stronger," said Bassett, whose group works to influence public policy decisions that involve health, including where sidewalks are installed on new roadways and how to provide healthy school lunches. The problem is complicated."There is something significant about understanding the contradictory reality and paradoxical experience of the obese in our culture. They are simultaneously hyper-visible in terms of their size and also invisible because of how they are marginalized and oppressed," said Cohan.

"The more isolated obese people get in this stigmatizing process, then they use their extra weight as a form of body armor, as a protective layer that ultimately inhibits emotional intimacy," Cohan said. "The issue of visibility is gendered since women are socialized to get pleasure from people thinking of them as tiny and taking up less and less space. Today, we see girls and women aspire to be a size zero or even a double zero. I ask all of you tonight, if zero is nothing, why would we aspire to be that which is rendered totally invisible, that which does not exist?"

Many on the panel are researching different treatments and prevention for obesity. For Sachek, it’s the connection between weight and fitness, and for Geller, the impact of social groups and trying new things on weight gain and loss.

Laura Hayman, PhD, a nurse and researcher from UMass Boston and GoKids Boston, is researching how engaging children in technologically driven games can increase weight loss.

No matter what the research, all  agree that "anyefforts to reduce obesity need to go beyond the individual," said Hayman, and influence the world around them. This includes increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, increasing the number of grocery stores in high poverty areas, and increasing the access to safe places to exercise.

Panelists agreed there is no easy way to solve this obesity epidemic, but individuals still can take small steps to make a difference.

For instance, even just cutting out 100 calories a day – one soda, one dinner roll, one snack bag of chips – can make a very positive impact on a person’s weight, and so can getting involved with social groups and trying new things.

The Regis College Leadership Series on Health, in partnership with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, was established in 2007. This unique series of free lectures is designed to inform both those in the health care field and members of the general public. The goal of the series is to build awareness of contemporary health and wellness issues and to develop knowledge and skills that will effect positive change addressing those issues.

Planned topics for spring 2010 are an update on the Massachusetts Health Care Reform Law and Alzheimer’s and other dementias of the elderly.

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